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Does it matter if Advani knew or not?

August 31, 2009 16:01 IST

In a relentless no holds barred tirade, that is meant to inflict maximum political damage to the Bharatiya Janata Party and L K Advani in particular, a vindictive Jaswant Singh, has raked up a host of contentious issues, divulging embarrassing inside information much to the BJP's discomfiture. The Kandahar hijacking is one of them. Central to this acerbic altercation is Advani's role in the negotiations that preceded the terrorists for hostages swap. Was the 'iron man' a willing party to what has been perceived as a meek and abject surrender to terrorists? And was he aware of the decision to send Jaswant Singh, the then external affairs minister to Kandahar?

Advani makes no bones of the fact that he was opposed initially to the trade off. In his book, My Country, My Life (p 622) he writes: "I was initially not in favour of exchanging the terrorists with the hostages."

However he proceeds to explain how he eventually came around to accepting this crass barter: "With mounting pressure from relatives on one hand, and the possibility of hijackers taking recourse to some desperate action on the other, the government most reluctantly took the option of minimising the loses. Three jailed terrorists including Masood Azhar were released on December 31 and handed over to the Taliban authorities in Kandahar."

Jaswant Singh as well as the cabinet appear to have concurred with this sequence  and trajectory of events as this news report (rediff.com, July 21, 2006) pertaining to Jaswant Singh's previous book, A Call to Honour suggests:

'Jaswant Singh reveals what went through his mind during the week-long hijack drama. His thoughts swung from one end to the other and he wanted to weigh the options before his government. 'For three terrorists, 161 men, women and children. Is it right? Wrong? A compromise? What? At first I stood against any compromise, then, slowly, as the days passed I began to change,' he wrote

Moreover he indicates that the cabinet as well was initially opposed to such a move:

'The day the demands of the hijackers -- $200 million as ransom money, release of some 36 proven terrorists and the interred remains of a terrorist -- came to me, I shared them with the cabinet and sought advice. The cabinet was unanimous -- 'Reject the demands and tell the press in appropriate words'.

But the million dollar question swirling in the air and fuelling the present controversy is not whether Advani approved of the terrorist for hostage swap but whether he was in the know of Jaswant Singh chaperoning the terrorists to Kandahar. In response to a question by Sekhar Gupta (Walk the Talk, March 24, 2008) Advani claims that he was not:  

Did you ever raise this question with Jaswant Singh, that where was the need for you to go? Because every time you raise questions on this government's record on terrorism, that will be raised . . .

I don't think I have to answer. It is he alone who can say precisely

Have you asked him?

We've talked about it occasionally. But I don't want to say anything. Let him say it, whatever he wants to say.

But looking back, would you say it was a wrong decision? It was avoidable?

I won't say anything. I'll only say that it would be fair for him to answer that question. Because this was not related to the decision: the decision was on whether the terrorists should be freed or not. And that was the joint decision by the cabinet committee on security.

But going on the plane was his decision?

I wouldn't know that. He must have consulted Vajpayeeji. But that was not an issue at all. And this was also raised by many others much later.

But in which country would an external affairs minister escort on a tiny plane . . . (terrorists being exchanged for hostages).

He was not escorting them, he was trying to bring back the passengers being held hostage. But I don't think I'm answerable for that. If the cabinet committee on security had taken the decision, I would have been answerable, but it did not.

And you were not consulted on it (his going on the plane).

I did not know about it.

So when did you get to know that he had gone on that plane?

I came to know when he was going.

And did it raise a question in your mind then?

No, it didn't. After all passengers (held hostage) were to be brought back from there and they were in bad shape.

In one of his post-expulsion fusillades Jaswant Singh vociferously negates Advani's conjecture and admits that his 'continuing sense of commitment and loyalty,' had prevented him from exposing Advani's duplicity, earlier on. Taking a cue from Jaswant Singh, other disgruntled BJP members like Yashwant Sinha and the former national security advisor Brajesh Mishra who were members of the cabinet committee on security have come forward to ditto Jaswant Singh's version of events.

But what exactly is the practical significance of this revelation? Does it really matter whether the home minister knew or did not know about Jaswant Singh accompanying the terrorists to Kandahar? The decision to do so had been endorsed by the cabinet committee on security that included the prime minister, the ultimate authority in our democratic process and Advani's boss. So Advani's knowledge of this decision or lack of it is a moot point.

Yes, there is a political and personal consequence to this disclosure; it does provide Advani's detractors a golden opportunity to settle personal scores. Yes, it does give the Congress party a schtick to ridicule the BJP's 'tough on terror' stance and cast aspersions on A B Vajpayee's faith in Advani. But when viewed in the broader national perspective of the country's security, this piece of information has little utility value. It is a non-event.

Moreover this unseemly resurrection of the Kandahar episode and its accompanying polemics serves to underline a serious flaw that afflicts the Indian psyche. We are fixated on personalities, not issues and objectives. In lieu of an ugly spat of personal recriminations and partisan politics, what we need is an analytical discourse to set to rest the ghost of Kandahar.

Ten years have elapsed since that fateful Christmas Eve hijack that callously turned a young couple's honeymoon jaunt into a wake for the groom, sent tremors through the corridors of a new and inexperienced government and left a nation badly shaken and traumatised. Now, shorn of the emotional trappings of that moment, it is time to take a second look at the Kandahar episode. Kandahar needs to be revisited for there are still lessons to be learnt.

There were two immediate objectives to be met: one, to bring back the hostages safely and two, to apprehend the terrorists who had perpetrated this heinous crime.

With the emotional barometer running high, the first objective took precedence. The terrorists had shown their ruthless character by the cold blooded murder of Rupin Katyal and were capable of more of the same. The hostages had to be brought back safely at any cost. Once IC-814 had taken off from Amritsar and left Indian air space the possibility of a successful commando operation became remote. At Kandahar, the Taliban, a tacit accomplice in this hijack, vetoed an Indian military operation and cried off any ability to do the job themselves. The government was left with no other option but to accede to the demands of the hijackers. This must be seen as a strategic capitulation not a final surrender.

The decision, without an iota of doubt, was the right one. In this analysis we need to be guided by the dictum: The lives of our innocent upright citizens are far more precious than the lives of the terrorists we released. There are no two ways about that.

Terms like, 'affront' and 'humiliation' belong to a lexicon of the past. Modern day pragmatism calls for attaining an objective with minimal loss. The loss in this case was minimal but the greatest fiasco of Kandahar is that ultimate objective was never achieved: that apprehension of the terrorists. More disturbing is the fact that what should be the focal point in any national debate on Kandahar fails to even figure in it.

Once the hostage crisis was over and our people were safe, India should have acted in a manner befitting the dominant power in the subcontinent. Retribution in the form of an aggressive covert operation to pursue and apprehend the released terrorists and the hijackers was necessary. That was not done; a lapse that lies with both the National Democratic Alliance and its successor government, the United Progressive Alliance. The hijackers and the released terrorists remain free till today; a standing testimony to the impression of India as a soft state whose citizens can be assaulted with little fear of reprisal. Recent acts of terrorism within our border like 26/11 continue to bolster this concept which needs to be changed.

Finally, we need to remember one thing. Kandahar is not about Advani. Neither can it viewed through the partisan politics of the BJP and the Congress. It was and must remain one with India's battle with terror.

Vivek Gumaste